At a moment of unprecedented attention, investment, and opportunity for the emerging field of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG), leaders are asking: Who is best preparing their organization for the society of the future? Who is innovating today to meet decades-long environmental and social goals? Who is setting standards that catalyze their industry’s change for the better? Who is defining what bold and aspirational look like — and how best to advance that work in practice?

Enter NationSwell’s ESG Next, an exemplary group of investors, executives, authors, philanthropists, social sector leaders, academics, and field builders who are helping to shape business as a force for social and environmental progress, advancing — and even pioneering — the most forward-thinking and effective programs, initiatives, technologies, methodologies, practices, and approaches.

For this installment, NationSwell interviewed Melissa MacDonnell, President, Liberty Mutual Foundation and Vice President, Community Investments, Liberty Mutual Insurance, about what this moment in corporate philanthropy means for practitioners, the power of a collaborative framework for funding, and how employee volunteerism programs can better center inclusion.

Greg Behrman, CEO + Founder, NationSwell: Tell us how your professional and personal journey led to this work.

Melissa MacDonnell, Liberty Mutual:  My mom worked as a social worker in Newark, NJ and instilled a strong sense of service in my nine siblings and me.  When I was in high school, she would take me every week to volunteer with adults with disabilities.  I helped them with daily tasks like making the bed, going to the local store, completing household activities, and more. Because of my mom, service became a part of my DNA, a lens through which I would see the world. 

One of the memories that will always stay with me was of one man with whom I worked. He was misdiagnosed as a child as having developmental disabilities; when in fact, he was deaf. Therefore, he spent his entire life in an institution. It was striking to know that the inability to understand his struggle resulted in a life of institutionalization. I built a strong bond with him and spent time teaching myself sign language. I wanted him to know I saw him. 

Later, I became a volunteer GED teacher and taught young people who were forced to grow up way too soon, forced to leave school to make money for their families, forced to deal with the urgency of needs today rather than building for their futures. 

I also had the chance to become a big sister; twenty-four years later, we are still sisters. Becoming a big sister for a girl living in a group home showed me how many people are struggling on their own, without the basic supports so many of us take for granted.

Behrman, NationSwell: How do you define this moment in corporate philanthropy?

MacDonnell, Liberty Mutual: It’s such an exciting moment for corporate philanthropy. When I started nearly 25 years ago, philanthropy was more of an offshoot. The company was always deeply committed to the community, but there was a desire to keep the philanthropy separate.  That desire came from a really good place; however, it left some of our potential for impact off the table.

Today, we are an integral part of Liberty Mutual — we’re central to the purpose of the company. There’s a recognition that our engagement in the community is collectively owned through our foundation and through each of our 50,000 employees who want an opportunity to give, serve, and volunteer. And with the proper construct, we have the chance to empower and engage all of Liberty to bring our expertise, our skills, our passion, and our resources to bear for our communities.

I think we’re just all collectively inspired by the opportunity to invest the strength of Liberty Mutual as a force for social good.

Behrman, NationSwell: What are some unique programs or initiatives you’re leading that other leaders may benefit from knowing?

MacDonnell, Liberty Mutual: Our work in youth homelessness is a great example of a programmatic body of work that we’re proud of. 

In youth homelessness, we found an issue that was not getting visibility or support, where there was a real and demonstrable need. We heard from our education partners that young people were showing up to school with backpacks stuffed with everything they owned. And we heard from adult shelters that they had to turn away more and more young people every day. 

The more we pulled the thread, the more we recognized that youth and young adult homelessness was something that really needed attention. So, we started to invest and joined a collaborative that included city and state officials, nonprofit leaders, Liberty Mutual, as the corporate leader, and, most importantly, young people with lived experience. Together, we helped the City of Boston successfully apply for $4.7 million in federal funding, which was critical for creating 157 housing opportunities for youth and young adults experiencing homelessness. Since 2018, Liberty Mutual has committed $24 million towards the issue, largely in Boston.

As a result of these collective efforts, the number of young people experiencing homelessness in Boston has dropped 44%. This collaborative approach is the reason this effort has been so successful — because it included so many voices and so many experts—particularly young people with lived experience.

Internally, another example that comes to mind is our Liberty Torchbearers program, where we provide employees the opportunity to serve annually in the community during work hours, volunteer on their own time to earn nonprofit mini-grants, and give to nonprofits that mean something to them, while earning a 100% company match with no upper limit. 

What differentiates Torchbearers is that even as we use it to drive organizational cohesion around giving back, we center it on individuality and inclusivity at its core. We’re all different, and we’re all in different seasons of our lives; we all give, volunteer, and serve differently from one another. If you’re a working parent and your way of giving back is volunteering your time during the workday, you can be a Torchbearer; if you’re at a different stage in your career and don’t have as much time to volunteer, but do have the resources to donate, you can be a Torchbearer. Or if you’re a manager and you really want to infuse service in some sort of team building, you and your team can engage in a community project together as Torchbearers. 

Having a framework that is inclusive and respectful of the different places and stages of people’s lives makes Torchbearers such a positive and impactful program.

One last initiative comes to mind: We’ve pulled together a cross-functional team within the company to explore how we can bring to bear the unique strengths of Liberty Mutual on behalf of our neighbors most disproportionately impacted by climate change.  So we’ve been inventorying our expertise on the corporate side and listening and learning from our community leaders so we can accelerate, enhance, and advance climate resiliency first in Boston and then beyond.

Our hope is that this work will tap into the best of who we are, and what we do. We have expertise, we have technologies we’re constantly creating for our customers, and there’s so much that can be transferred into our community.

Behrman, NationSwell: To which leadership practices do you most attribute your effectiveness?

MacDonnell, Liberty Mutual: I live with a very deep sense of urgency on behalf of our neighbors. I feel strongly about the needs in our community, and I feel deeply about the people whose voices aren’t always heard. I also believe in the goodness of my colleagues. Together, we can meet this sense of urgency and do everything we can to advance social good. 

Behrman, NationSwell: Who are the peers that you admire and what are some resources – a book, podcast, article, etc. – that inspire  you?

MacDonnell, Liberty Mutual: I admire Jill Shah, the president of the Shah Family Foundation, and Ross Wilson, their executive director. I love the work they do. Not only are they generous givers, but they add tremendous value to community discussions and to the field of philanthropy.

A company I admire is UPS. I love how they’ve used their “superpowers” especially their expertise with distribution in times of crisis: the way that they responded to COVID, getting different services out to people as well as their activation during natural disasters. They’re there, they jump on it, and they do what they do so well in their business. 

In literature, there’s a book by Phil Buchanan called Giving Done Right. I really appreciate his point of view, and his warnings about the power dynamics of philanthropy. George Serafeim’s Purpose and Profit is also a terrific work I strongly recommend. It’s such an interesting book jam-packed with real-life cases. I have also learned a lot by Bill Gates’ How to Avoid a Climate Disaster In fact, I’m reading it for a second time right now!

To learn more about how our ESG Next honorees are shaping business as a force for social and environmental good, visit the series hub.